Seattle Central Library

From Academic Kids

Seattle Central Library Exterior
Seattle Central Library Exterior

The Seattle Central Library is an 11-story glass and steel building in downtown Seattle, Washington. Rem Koolhaas was the principal architect. The 362,987 square foot (34,000 m²) public library can hold about 1.45 million books and other materials, features underground public parking for 143 vehicles, and is expected to draw about 8,000 visitors each day. It is the third Seattle Central Library building to be located on the same site at 1000 Fourth Avenue, the block bounded by Fourth and Fifth Avenues and Madison and Spring Streets.

Just 56 meters (185 ft) high, the Seattle Central Library is remarkable for its architecture rather than its height. (To compare, the Bank of America Tower, Seattle's tallest building, is 285 meters (937 ft), and the iconic Space Needle is 184 meters (605 ft) tall.) The library has a unique, striking appearance, consisting of several discrete "floating platforms" seemingly wrapped in a large steel net around glass skin. Herbert Muschamp, an architecture critic for The New York Times, described it as "a blazing chandelier to swing your dreams upon" and a "big rock candy mountain of a building."

The Seattle Central Library opened to the public on Sunday, May 23, 2004. Architectural tours of the building began on June 5.


Planning the new library

Seattle Central Library Interior
Seattle Central Library Interior

Funding for the new Seattle Central Library building, as well as other construction projects throughout the library system, was provided by a $196.4 million bond measure, called "Libraries for All," approved by Seattle voters on November 3, 1998.

Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Ramus of the Dutch firm Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), working in conjunction with the Seattle firm LMN Architects, served as the building's principal architects. Ramus served as the partner in charge. Ironically, OMA was not one of the firms invited to compete for the project. Ramus, formerly a Seattle resident, found out from his mother one day in advance that the library board was inviting interested firms to attend a mandatory public meeting. He attended, flying in from the Netherlands, and OMA ended up winning the project.

Deborah Jacobs, Chief Librarian in the Seattle Public Library system, spearheaded the project from the library's perspective and served as the primary client voice, while Betty Jane Narver served as president of the Library Board.


Seattle Central Library Interior
Seattle Central Library Interior

The architects conceived the new Central Library building as a celebration of books, deciding after some research that despite the arrival of the 21st century and the "digital age," people still respond to books printed on paper. The architects also worked to make the library inviting to the public, rather than stuffy, which they discovered was the popular perception of libraries as a whole.

Although the library is an unusual shape from the outside, the architects' philosophy was to let the building's required functions dictate what it should look like, rather than imposing a structure making the functions conform to that.

For example, a major section of the building is the "Books Spiral," designed to display the library's nonfiction collection without breaking up the Dewey Decimal System classification onto different floors or sections. The collection spirals up through four stories on a continuous series of shelves, allowing patrons to peruse the entire collection without using stairs or traveling to a different part of the building.

Other internal features include the Microsoft Auditorium on the ground floor; the "Living Room" on the third floor, designed as a space for patrons to read; the Charles Simonyi Mixing Chamber, a version of a reference desk that provides interdisciplinary staff help for patrons who want to have questions answered or do research; and the Betty Jane Narver Reading Room on level 10, with views of Elliott Bay.

Seattle Central Library Interior
Seattle Central Library Interior

New functions include automatic book sorting and conveyance, self-checkout for patrons, wireless communications among the library staff, and over 400 public computer terminals.

Critical response

Critical response to the building has been largely favorable. In The New York Times, Herbert Muschamp wrote that "in more than 30 years of writing about architecture, this is the most exciting new building it has been my honor to review." Paul Goldberger, writing in The New Yorker, declared the Seattle Central Library "the most important new library to be built in a generation, and the most exhilarating."

External links

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Seattle Central Library Interior

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